Press "Enter" to skip to content

Coloradans adjust to dangers of wildfire smoke, high ozone levels: “30, 40 days without going for a walk”

It’s one thing to stay inside for a handful of days each summer because of bad air. It’s quite another when close to half of the season may be off-limits to Coloradans with asthma and other lung conditions.

Sylvia Lane, a lifelong Colorado resident, said she’s adapted in recent years by scheduling anything she needs to do outside in the morning, and wearing a mask to filter out some pollution on days when wildfire smoke is particularly bad.

Generally, air quality is better in the morning, because ozone levels increase with heat.

“It’s gotten worse over the years. It’s easy to tell,” she said. Until a few years ago, “you never went outside and you couldn’t see the mountains.”

Avoiding excessive air pollution is important for people like Lane, a Lakewood resident who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult. She said she’s “blessed” to be able to stay inside with air conditioning, but that it’s important to get outside for both exercise and mental health.

“I must have my fresh air for my sanity, which is why I go outside early,” she said.

It’s a balance that others with lung conditions that could be aggravated by air pollution are having to strike, especially as smoke from wildfires burning in Colorado and across the West becomes an increasingly common summer staple.

Between July 9 and Thursday, Denver’s air was dirty enough that higher-risk people were advised to stay inside on all but one day. On four of those 14 days, levels of ozone were high enough that even healthy people were advised to avoid strenuous outdoor activities, according to AirNow.gov.

Dr. Anthony Gerber, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health, said doctors working with patients who have lung diseases are rethinking some of their advice for dealing with poor air quality. People who have asthma or other lung conditions tend to have more symptoms on days with high levels of ozone or particulate matter, but staying indoors for increasing periods of the summer may not be feasible, he said.

“It’s really a difficult area, especially with this not being a couple days,” he said. “Thirty, 40 days without going for a walk… is also a challenge.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment hasn’t seen an increase in emergency room visits or hospitalizations related to asthma in summers with more air pollution, spokeswoman Shannon Barbare said. Generally, severe asthma symptoms rise in May and September, due to allergens like pollen and seasonal respiratory viruses, she said.

“Asthma attacks have many causes, so it is difficult to tie asthma (emergency department)/hospital visits solely to short-term changes in air pollution, including from wildfire smoke,” she said in an email.

Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post

LAKEWOOD, CO – JULY 23: Sylvia Lane poses for a portrait at her home on Friday, July 23, 2021. Lane suffers from a few respiratory ailments but loves being outdoors. Due to the current state of the metro area’s air quality she avoids being outside during midday and usually goes outside in the morning or late evening. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

Increase in ozone days

As of Monday, Colorado has had 28 ozone action days since May 31, with 12 more projected through Aug. 31. If that projection comes to pass, it would mean roughly two out of every five days between the start of June and the end of August were potentially high-risk for people with lung conditions.

The number of high-ozone days varies from year-to-year, but has generally increased over the last decade. Between 2011 and 2015, the state health department issued an average of 30 ozone alerts each summer. Between 2016 and 2020, it averaged close to 42 alerts between May 31 and Aug. 31 of each year.

Ozone is the most common reason for the Front Range to exceed federal air quality standards. It’s produced when chemicals from fossil fuels or paint react under sunlight. That’s why the state health department asks residents to avoid driving or mowing their lawns on days when ozone levels will be high.

High levels of particulate matter — tiny particles that can get trapped deep in the lungs — are a less consistent feature of summer on the Front Range, but an invasive one when they do arrive.

Colorado’s particulate matter typically comes from wildfires, which are becoming larger and more common as parts of the West are 20 years into a “megadrought,” which has dried the soil to a point that fires can reach elevations that previously were cool and wet enough to act as firebreaks.

Since avoiding outdoor activity for much of the summer isn’t feasible for many people, doctors are advising their patients about ways to do it more safely, like going outside in the morning, which is generally safer, Gerber said. Wearing an N95 mask — the kind health care workers use when treating patients who have COVID-19 — can filter out particulate matter, though it won’t help with ozone, he said.

“People with asthma, to some extent they can let their symptoms be their guide,” he said.

High levels of particulate matter also increase the odds of heart attacks or strokes in people who have risk factors for those conditions because of inflammation, Gerber said. Generally, air quality advisories don’t focus on the risk of a “rare but terrible” event like a heart attack, because so many people would be at risk based on age alone and it isn’t feasible to ask a large swath of the population to stay inside, he said.

David Zalubowski, The Associated Press

Smoke from countless wildfires burning across the West obscures the skyline as children seek relief from the 90-degree heat in a fountain outside the Museum of Nature and Science Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in east Denver. Wildfires across Colorado as well the entire West have made for extremely poor air quality in the region.

Greater hazards for kids

While healthy adults may be able to safely go out on days with somewhat elevated ozone, it’s a different story for kids. Even healthy children are at a higher risk of short- and long-term effects from air pollution than adults are because their lungs are still developing, they tend to be more active and they breathe faster, taking in more air and whatever particles are in it, said Dr. Heather De Keyser, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Parents may have to get creative to keep their kids busy on days with poor air quality. Those who have air conditioning can set up activities like treasure hunts and obstacle courses indoors to burn off some energy, De Keyser said. For those who can’t cool their houses without opening the windows, finding air-conditioned public spaces may be the best option, so long as kids wear masks to reduce the odds of catching COVID-19, she said.

Like adults, kids tend to have the most asthma attacks in the fall, as they return to school and are exposed to respiratory viruses, De Keyser said. It’s still important to keep up with asthma precautions over the summer, though, because inflammation in the lungs can build silently, making kids’ symptoms that much worse when their lungs are exposed to a trigger, whether that’s a virus, air pollution or an allergen like pollen, she said.

For some, keeping up with their symptoms is quite a process.

Lyric Enger, 12, said she avoids her favorite outdoor activities like skateboarding and golf on bad air days, but sometimes smoke still triggers her symptoms even though she stays inside and takes her medications as directed.

She estimated it took a half-hour and at least seven steps, including using her rescue inhaler and a nasal spray, to get the congestion and wheezing under control on a smoky day in Colorado Springs last week.

“It’s very hard… because I can’t control the fires,” she said.